Instrumental Melodies

Why Instrumental Music Absolutely Needs a Good Melody

How to Harmonize a MelodyIf you’ve written a melody and you want to explore the many ways there are to add chords to it, you need to get “How to Harmonize a Melody.” It shows you step by step, with sound samples, how to create the chords that will bring your melodies to life.


Here’s a bit of a mystery that I’m not sure I’ve ever been able to solve: Why is it that so many instrumental songs that up-and-coming songwriters send to me for my comments seem to be missing a good melody?

And by good melody, I mean any melody at all?

It’s almost as if there’s a theory out there that says as long as you’ve grabbed your listeners’ attention with at least one component of what makes a good song, your song will be fine. So perhaps the thought is that as long as there’s a great chord progression, for example, your instrumental won’t need much of a melody.

To be honest, there is music out there that seems to be all chords and not much of anything else. Even classical music can sometimes have songs where the melody seems to be almost lacking.

A good case in point would be this famous piece for pipe organ, written by French composer Charles-Marie Widor. It’s the final movement of his Symphony for Organ No. 5. What you’re hearing is a series of arpeggiated (“broken”) chords, and not a melody in the traditional sense of the word:

If someone asked you to hum that melody you’d be hard pressed to comply. The upper lines sound chaotic in the sense that you don’t get a sustained tone anywhere; the fingers fly about, never sitting on one pitch for more than a millisecond.

But in fact, even in a piece like this, there is a melody. If you concentrate on just the highest notes of each set of arpeggios, you start to hear a kind of melody that could be hummed. And in fact, once the piece really gets going, the “melody” gets transfered down to the organ pedal notes… the lowest notes you hear, starting at about 0’42”.

Your Audience Needs Something to Hum

If you’re writing an instrumental, you need to give your audience something they can hum, because without that, you’ve given them little to connect them emotionally to your music. Remember, since it’s an instrumental, they won’t have words to make that emotional connection. The melody is a very important part of the musical formula of an instrumental.

And humming, or otherwise replicating a good song, is an important part of pulling someone back to your song. Since we can’t really hum a chord progression, the melody in an instrumental is a crucial component.

So if you’re working on an instrumental, here an important tip: try humming your own instrumental. If you can’t — in other words, if the melody is so obscure that even you can’t hum it — you’ve got problems.

Progressive rock is often a good genre to study for identifying the importance of a good melody. One of my favourite examples from classic prog rock is the two instrumentals (which together sound like a part 1 and part 2 of the same song) called “Unquiet Slumbers for the Sleepers…” and “…In That Quiet Earth”.

In those two songs you’ll hear the importance of the melodies to the success of the songs. True enough, there are moments where the melodies seem to step back and where chords and rhythmic activity take centre stage. But melody is a crucial component.

In practically every moment of these songs, there is something to hum. Your instrumentals need to offer the same.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook bundle includes“Writing a Song From a Chord Progression”. Discover the secrets of making the chords-first songwriting process work for you.

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